Figurative painter Alex Katz’s landscapes dominate High show

I’ve always loved Alex Katz’s stark, pared-back, iconic portraits that seem to capture a certain strata of New York life: the smart, prosperous folk who populate the films of Noah Baumbach or Mike Nichols.

A formidable artist on the New York scene since the 1960s, Katz’s unique legacy is those clear-eyed, sophisticated figurative paintings that often convey information about his subjects in a brilliantly economical vocabulary: a slash of red lipstick, a rope of pearls or a dramatic wide-brimmed hat.

“Alex Katz, This Is Now” at the High Museum of Art features a number of those idiosyncratic portraits like “Summer Picnic” of Katz’s cosmopolitan city folk lingering over an outdoor meal, a bottle of bourbon and bug spray laid out on the table before them. But for the most part, “This is Now” zeroes in on the landscape itself, which High curator Michael Rooks sees as a gateway to Katz’s emotions.

The Maine landscape where Katz has spent decades painting — in particular the groves of pine trees and lonely boats bobbing on the water — is the focus of this show. As you move deeper into “This Is Now,” the portraits disappear, replaced by Katz’s studies of sunsets or evergreens and, in the show’s finale, large, nearly abstract works focused on a “Black Brook” that the artist has returned to over the course of 20 years.

Though the show highlights an interesting tangent in Katz’s work and the expressive potential of his landscapes, it’s hard not to long for more of those seductive, beguiling portraits. There’s just no denying their impact: The museum has even acknowledged the vital salesmanship of Katz’s figurative work by making his gorgeous painting of a woman captured head-on navigating a birch canoe through a detergent blue lake, “Good Afternoon,” the audience-bait hung on an enormous vinyl banner on the museum’s Peachtree-facing facade.

Those portraits may remain high points for many visitors to this show, though key landscapes bristle with equivalent life and energy.

In shades of lime and chartreuse, “10:30 am” depicts the arresting gradations of green in a stand of birch trees captured in dappled sunlight. Some of Katz’s most arresting landscapes convey the meditative, magical qualities of nature where subtle shifts of light play tricks on the eye and can turn what can look like a photo negative image of the hazy gray tree line in “Dawn 3” into a blazing riot of electric crimson at “Sunset.” It is indeed hard to miss the emotion and rapture as the artist stands before the natural world.

But the landscapes also vary greatly in their impact. Endless studies of that “Black Brook” are just that. In many of these works, Katz pursues the idea of reflection, confusing our perspective in his topsy-turvy world where trees and sky are reflected in the placid mirror of those brook studies. It’s a particularly painterly, conceptual interest that loses its impact when repeated.

Some of the most surprising and delightful pieces in the show are a series of eight cut paper collages from the ’50s and ’60s that sum up the heart of this exhibition and feature people dwarfed by the verdant landscapes surrounding them. The works give an indication of Katz’s pared-back style to come, and also foretell his way of isolating his figures in stark landscapes. Time spent in their delicate presence is far more rewarding than the monumental brooks to come.

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